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  • The Closest of Strangers: South African Women's Life Writing
  • Sam Raditlhalo (bio)
Judith Lütge Coullie . The Closest of Strangers: South African Women's Life Writing. Johannesburg: Wits UP, 2004. 386 pp. ISBN 1-8614-388-0, R190.

It is a good and valuable exercise to read these vignettes of South African women over the last century and into the new millennium. For what the editor, Judith Lütge Coullie, has done is to allow these voices to "speak" for themselves, to articulate for the compatriot and the cross-border reader the evolution of South Africa from an insignificant, middling southern African country to a mid-level regional economic and political player. The eclectic selection done decade by decade is astonishing to read, as the evolution of a contested country and terrain is stenciled on the psyche of the writers. Importantly, the autobiographical subjects offer fascinating insights into the lives of the historical subjects, and one way in which this text proves its timeliness is by juxtaposing what the autobiographical subjects relate about a particular era and what we think we know of South Africa at the time from sometimes dry and polemical historical tomes. Through a close reading, one gets the personal history as it is played against the background of the larger, more reified political contestations.

Starting in 1895, when two of the regions in the contested country were under English law and jurisdiction (the Cape Colony and Natal), coexisting [End Page 367] with two landlocked "free" Boer Republics (the South African Republic and the Orange Free State), Coullie meticulously charts the life writings of women in these colonies up to and including the democratized space that South Africa attains in 1990 and following. How a warped society shapes its subjects, and how such autobiographical subjects are experienced as displayed selves, becomes the heart of the text. The period of "1895 to 1910: The Birth of South Africa" opens with that violent birth of a country in which the settlers contest supremacy. The fascinating vignette writings of Sarah Raal and Emily Hobhouse in particular serve as a template to view the interspersing of womanhood-from-a-state-at-arms—Sarah Raal's alter ego in the text is Caesarina Kona Makhoere of the 1976 Student Uprising era. Significantly, many of the life writing entries in the text strain to reconcile themselves to the parameters of this template. Literary creation becomes the vehicle by which these voices discover and unpack their individuality, and we are made to view the country through the prisms of race, class, language, political affiliation, region, religion, and in some instances, ethnic orientation. In effect, the writers use the genre to "try and reverse the conditioning process in order to free themselves, through reassessment of their entire growth and development, of their mental subjugation, to make their consciousness" (Watts 115).

As Coullie notes in her Introduction, it is important that such disencumbrance be seen against the backdrop of colonialism as it intersected with sexism. The codification of customary law by colonial authorities, for example, was generally disadvantageous to African women. For countless black women, racism and its attendant land appropriation, along with forced adaptations to capitalism and notions of western individualism, resulted in extreme economic and emotional insecurity. As black men were emasculated by racism, and as large numbers were increasingly unable or unwilling to engage in stable, responsible relationships with women and children, male exploitation of women and girls escalated in frequency and degree. In white communities, men who learned and perpetuated a sense of their inalienable right to dehumanize black South Africans often felt that they had a similar right over women. Thus the oppression of women, although unequally imposed, was never confined to any particular racial group, and the brutalities of the gross infringements of human rights that apartheid bred necessarily seeped into—and continue to sour—gender relationships in this country (10).

We need to note at the outset the differences in approaching life writings by men and women, particularly white writers of the genre. As Sidonie Smith notes, men write essentially to prove a life lived to the full, coming out of the traditions of the Enlightenment...


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